Empathy is the necessary beginning

“Empathy is fundamentally, from a moral stand point, a bad thing. It makes the world worse” — Paul Bloom
Professor of Psychology & Cognitive Science, Yale University

The above is an excerpt from a short preview animated by the Atlantic of Paul Bloom’s stance against empathy in his up-coming book on the subject.

I found the short to be disheartening in its discarding of empathy as an essential part of life — in our relationships, our interactions and our ability to contribute to our society, culture and community.

Bloom understands empathy as “putting oneself in the shoes of another”, consequently increasing the likelihood of “helping or caring for that person”. Why does he think this is a bad thing? Bloom claims that it “blinds us to the long term consequences of our actions”; the consequences being that the empathy driven concern for people shadows the engagement of greater issues:

“The whole world cares so much more about a baby stuck in a well and less about global warming”.

The thought presents varying degrees of problematic implications on what Bloom deems worth addressing that are telling of his attitude toward human empathy and the social attention that certain issues may receive as a result.

The foundations for Bloom’s argument against empathy in the video are based on his description of two altruist character types developed by moral philosopher Peter Singer: the warm-glow altruist and the effective altruist.

The warm-glow altruist donates a small amount to a number of organisations with each act of charity providing a small rush, concluding that the donations are simply a self-congratulatory “buzz”, while the effective altruist analyses “what the world needs, how they could use their money to best end and how they could volunteer and act to make things better”. In the video, Bloom implies empathy as the cause of warm-glow altruism and the absence of it as the improvement in behaviour of the effective altruist.

The problem with the scenarios above as arguments against empathy lie in the first’s reliance upon dishonest altruism in the name of false empathy and the other’s case for an approach to solving problems as effective when void of it.

The warm-glow altruist is not much of an altruist, as the suggested intention behind each act of charity is the self-centered emotional reward. I understand the notion that there are many who will use the word empathy to justify their ‘selfless’ actions but it should be clear that those who would do so are superficially adapting the word. A warm-glow altruist’s empathy is not empathy.

The effective altruist is described as rationally sound in their approach to discerning what it is they can do to improve the world as efficiently as possible. Bloom implies that it is the absence of empathy that promotes such favourable behaviour. Although I won’t suggest that the actions of an effective altruist should necessarily stem from empathy, I argue that the lack of empathy in the process of evaluating problems will result in unsuccessful solutions.

I have read pieces on empathy as being an impossibility, arguing that we cannot truly understand each other’s individual experiences and situations as we are, quite simply, not each other. I agree with this as a response to empathy’s dictionary definition; however, I have learnt that empathy aks us not to attempt to feel or understand from another’s perspective but rather hold back on our own in order to hear the other. Empathy demands that we set aside our pre-meditated answers and personal perspectives so that we hear and, most importantly, listen. I’d argue this is fundamental for all human interactions, if not essential when crafting solutions to human-centered problems.

So… in the case of Bloom’s celebrated effective altruist, the desire alone to help strategically and efficiently is not enough. How can we be aware of possible issues if we are not listening in the first place? Even the more socially discussed issues will fail to be addressed successfully if we do not approach them with empathy. Without empathy we can only offer shallow solutions, solutions that may not address the problem in the first place.

Empathy isn’t bad, if anything, we are bad at it.

Note: I think this applies to many people and various disciplines but I’d like to acknowledge that it is most relevant to those with high privilege.